Whatever the specific predictions for a vast internet of things, or the future market for a trillion sensors, it’s clear the world is moving towards new possibilities of using more sensors in more places to collect more data to do more things.
The interesting question is what’s needed to take advantage of these kinds of potential opportunities, with proposed solutions ranging from open platforms and more integrated functionality, to printed sensors and batch assembly processes.
Leading MEMS technologists at the recent Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center research overview meeting argued that enabling big future growth of sensors would require disruptive lower-cost manufacturing technologies— with more open platforms and more system thinking, to open development to a much wider range of creative minds to develop more applications.
Fast-growing demand for MEMS sensors is already turning the niche into a much more mature industry, moving towards stable high-volume production capability, tinier and lower cost devices, ever improving performance, easy-to-integrate functions, and even faster time-to-market. But potentially huge future sensor applications will require more innovative manufacturing technologies and designs to reduce costs, as well as more focus on adding value beyond just the component, by things like integrating more sensor data and more intelligence to add functions to systems.
Major growth of markets for complex technological systems has often been enabled by de-coupling design from manufacturing, argued Kaigham (Ken) Gabriel, now moved from DARPA to Corporate VP for advanced technology at Motorola Mobility. “This means a conscious throwing away of performance at the component level to shift the design emphasis to the system, and to handling complexity,” he explained. Most obvious example is the IC industry, where the fabless model expanded the numbers of chip designers from thousands to tens of thousands and greatly increased the diversity of ideas and new products. But he also argued the same trends were evident across electronic systems, where the separation of assemblers from higher-level programming languages helped expand the development of new functions. A more recent example may be the wider availability of affordable and better quality 3D printing tools, which have opened that technology platform to such unexpected uses as the 30,000 3D printed faces with different expressions that animators made for Norman for the movie ParaNorman. Gabriel argued that scaling up accessible platforms to produce large networks of sensors would similarly enable many as yet unimagined applications, noting French World War I hero Marshal Foch’s famous opinion that airplanes were interesting toys, but of no military value. “That’s why it’s important to scale up production—we create new things by building,” noted Gabriel.
A major TerraSwarm research project, funded by DARPA and Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC) industry partners, aims to build such an open common platform for wireless sensor networks. “The goal is an applications development platform to unleash lots of creative minds to figure out what to do with sensor networks,” explained UC Berkeley professor Edward Lee, noting how the Apple apps platform similarly enabled a range of applications unimagined just a few years ago. He argued that wireless sensor networks had yet to developed as projected because they so far worked only as closed systems.
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